I am consistently moved by meaningful letters. When I write thank you notes, I am sure to take time with them so the recipient can feel my genuine gratitude. However, when I write other notes, specifically condolence notes, I find it more challenging. (Let me be honest, I’ve even looked for mentor letters to help me write a sincere condolence note. Luckily I found this a couple of years ago.)
As I was perusing this past week’s Slice of Life Story Contributions, I came upon an amazing story from Annie Campbell, who I met in Carl Anderson’s Revision Class at the TCRWP Writing Institute during the summer of 2008. Annie is a third grade teacher at William Fox Elementary School, a public school in Richmond, Virginia. She has a fantastic blog, “Write Now in Room 204,” which chronicles a lot of the amazing things Annie does with her students. Since I’ve known her, I’ve always thought Annie would be the kind of person I’d want to have teaching my children (i.e., if I were a parent). After reading about the Chores for Change Project she led in her classroom, I’m even more convinced of the fantastic types of educational opportunities Annie provides for her students on a daily basis.
As I read about the Chores for Change Project Annie blogged about, I was captivated by the fact that her third graders did more than send money to Haiti. They wrote letters. Not just any kinds of letters, but thank you letters to the relief workers. I e-mailed Annie to learn more and this is what I found out.
Annie was required, by her district, to give her students a portfolio assessment on thank you notes. She began teaching thank you notes as a genre by sending notes to the students in her class (in some cases simply thanking them for who they were in the class) over the holidays. While she didn’t use her notes as mentor texts, per se, she knew that they would have all had a common experience, receiving a thank you note from her, as a means to understanding the genre. Then, she brought in a bunch of letters written to her. Together with her students, they noticed the form of letters, what the first sentences, and the closing looked like. She even brought out her grandmother’s copy of an Emily Post Etiquette Book, which she learned to write thank you notes from, and studied the examples of thank you notes with her students. They continued to make noticings about thank you notes from the letters in the Post Book. Eventually, her students used a variety of thank you notes to help them write their own for their portfolio assessment.
Then, the earthquake struck Haiti. Here’s where Annie took what her students learned about thank you notes and turned it into a real-life project. In her own words:
In the midst of horror, gratitude became a word with richer and deeper meaning. The more we wished we could help, the more grateful we became to those who could. We were raising money to help and realized that there were people who would use that money to help where help was needed most. We were grateful to them. And we knew how to show gratitude because we knew how to write a thank you note. My students worked with partners on possible first sentences. We wrote a list of closings. We drafted. And then we passed out stationary and pens. This assignment had such purpose and clear audience that strong voice was inevitable. I never even mentioned it. Their notes are being sent with the money to the Red Cross.
I made copies for the portfolio and copies for a future mini lesson. They unwittingly produced beautiful mentor texts on voice.
While Annie’s students wrote their initial thank you notes, for their portfolio assessments, after studying mentor texts, now their writing has a greater legacy. Their notes to the Red Cross Volunteers are now going to serve as mentor texts for future classes of students who are aiming to write letters of gratitude.
Annie was kind enough to share one of her students’ letters with me for this forum. Here it is:
If you haven’t already clicked on one of the “Chores for Change Project” Links above, then click here to learn more about the letters Annie’s third graders wrote and sent. There’s a fantastic digital video that accompanies her words.
Finally, if you’d like to make a donation to the American Red Cross’s Haiti Relief & Development, then click here.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).